There was an interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday about writers paying artists on creator-owned books. It involved some discussion about whether money, essentially, pollutes the collaborative process, and whether artists who are working for no pay up front are more likely to be passionate about a project.
For what it’s worth, I’ve collaborated under a variety of different structures, both paid and unpaid, and I’ve never found upfront pay to have a negative impact on the level of collaboration or on the end-product of the artists I’ve worked with. Quite the opposite.
I’m sure other people will talk about that side of things more in-depth, and I’ll leave them to it. However, there is another aspect to all this that I wanted to address. In this discussion, a lot of folks indicated that they felt it was, at a base level, unfair for writers to be expected to pay artists on a creator-owned book. “If writers are working for free on a book,” the argument goes, “then shouldn’t artists?”
Here’s how I would respond: there is, absolutely, a fundamental disconnect between what the comics industry tells upstart artists and upstart writers about upfront pay. This disconnect isn’t talked about much; it’s such a strong part of the fabric of self-published comics that it’s often simply taken for granted.
Basically: Artists are taught that their work has value – not just artistic and cultural value, but actual monetary value – and that they should act accordingly. As my friend Michael Walsh tweeted, “Artists 101 – Value yourselves: never work for free, speculation of pay or exposure.”
By contrast, writers* are told that if we want to break in, we need to make our own comics. And with very few exceptions, that involves losing money. A lot of money, for a long time (maybe forever). It’s the exact opposite of the advice often given to artists.
* yes, writers are artists, of course, but I’m using the term “artist” here to mean a penciler or penciler/inker on a comic book, not the broader sense of the word. Only mentioning it since people often bring this up when I talk about these things.
Also, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m talking about books that are self-published or put out through a small publisher; comics where there is virtually no chance that that upfront page rate will be returned to the writer in profit.
There are two ways of looking at this: from a practical standpoint, and from a more philosophical standpoint.
From a practical standpoint, there are reasons a-plenty why it makes sense that if money is being exchanged, it should flow from the writer to the artist. Namely:
This is the most obvious one. An artist can basically do one monthly book or major project at a time. If you’re asking them to work on your project, you are asking them to only work on your project. Meanwhile, you could be working on three, four, five other things, including some possible work-for-hire. So the labor is greater, and the opportunity cost of missed projects is much greater. Compensation makes sense in both cases.
This isn’t always the case, but in self-published and small-press books, there is often a huge disparity between the backgrounds and training levels of the writer and artist. Professional-level artists do not leap forth, fully-formed, from the head of Zeus.
I reached out to Walsh yesterday to get his okay to quote the tweet that I used a few paragraphs back. We discussed the topic a bit more over e-mail, and as he put it:
“I’m saying this more from the view of a professional, and someone who has a degree in illustration. I spent $40,000 acquiring the right to ask for money.”
And even a self-taught artist has put in countless thousands upon thousands of hours honing their craft before reaching a professional level. Most writers who are starting out have probably… not. Heck, there are many, many comic-book writers who literally publish the first comic they ever wrote (and that’s not meant as an insult – some very good friends of mine and fiercely-talented writers fall into that category).
I think I’m probably a bit of an outlier in this regard; I spent years writing comics, racking up 2,000 script pages, before I ever tried to find an artist and get published. It just made sense to train, to hone my craft, and to reach an acceptable minimal level of quality before I put any work out into the world. Add to that all the rest of the writing I’ve done in my life, including my time as a professional full-time journalist, and I had a lot of miles on the odometer before I put my first comics out. But compared to even an average professional-level artist? Not. Even. Close.
Unpublished comics writers aren’t paid because there’s no one willing to pay them. Plain and simple. So even if we did adopt an attitude of valuing our work and not working for exposure, it would do us exactly zero good.
You can look at an artist’s work and evaluate it fairly quickly. At cons, there’s an infrastructure in place for editors to do so. There’s no similar infrastructure for writers. This same difficulty in evaluating writers also means that the marketplace for writers is much noisier, and crowded with people whose skills aren’t there yet, regardless of whether anyone knows it.
Different channels to the industry
So, how is a writer supposed to make a name for themselves in that maelstrom? By making comics. As I said, there is no portfolio line for writers, and there are no aspiring artists trying to hire us based on a great Deviant Art account. If we want in, we have to show that once we’re in, we’ll be able to put out dynamic and professional work (of course, getting editors to look at that work once it’s completed is another uphill battle – but that’s a topic for a different blog post).
So… yeah. The time involved in creating art, the experience necessary to be a writer versus an artist, and the simple structural issues of breaking in to comics all stack up to create a system in which writers often pay artists on a collaborative work, but the money virtually never flows in the opposite direction.
That’s the practical argument. But as I said, there’s also a philosophical argument. And from that point-of-view, if you believe that creative work has value, and that creators should be paid for their work, then of course the current way of doing things is unfair. Of course writers should also value and treasure their work enough to demand payment, rather than shelling out thousands of dollars for exposure, and for the possibility of maybe, hopefully, someday, way down the line, possibly having a shot at getting paid for all of this.
When I see writers get frustrated about this, all I can say is, yes, it is frustrating. In my time in comics, my bank account has been decimated; I’ve gone deep into debt; and despite a few work for hire gigs (for which I am insanely thankful, and consider myself very lucky) I am still nowhere near the point where I’m making a profit off the comics industry. I work 16, 18, often 20 hours a day to try to make this comics thing happen for me. An artist at my same level of talent, with my same level of hustle and time commitment, might not be any further along in his or her career, but they almost certainly wouldn’t be as deep in the hole financially (at least from this phase of things; art school is a whole different story). And that does sometimes makes me feel like my work isn’t valued. It makes me, on occasion, feel pretty ticked off at an industry that sets up structured portfolio reviews for artists, while requiring writers to create their own comics from scratch, at an extraordinarily high cost, just to maybe get a shot at getting in.
So, that’s the philosophical view. But we live in a world built on practicality, not philosophy. And feeling bitter and devalued solves absolutely nothing. Besides, how do you fix it? What’s the solution? What’s a better way for comics publishers to operate, that wouldn’t create a ridiculously high burden on their time? There isn’t one. And to me, saying that “I’m not getting paid, so the artist shouldn’t either” is no kind of answer.
When I feel my brain sliding in the wrong direction on this issue, I make a conscious effort to course-correct. I remind myself of the immeasurable value that artistic collaborators have brought to my work. I remind myself that I want to be fair to them, and respectful of the time they’re putting into this project, and they time they put into become a great artist. I remind myself that the system may not be great, but that it’s worked for me so far. I put out my self-published work; it got noticed by some of the right people; and I’m now starting, little by little, to build a career.
If you find an artist who is comfortable not working for upfront pay, more power to you. Some of my projects have fallen into that category, for a variety of reasons. But the notion that it’s somehow wrong for an artist to expect pay is just ludicrous.
So, as writers, we have a choice. We can complain about artists who have the gall to expect payment — we can be bitter, and risk burning bridges — or we can look at things from their point of view, consider some of the points above, and then get back to the long, hard work of improving our craft and putting out great comics, however we can.
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